Not for Pilots Only: Flight-mapping Software Attracts Broad Audience with Its Diverse Capabilities

Yet researchers never envisioned how pervasive FalconView would be - both in terms of its users and uses.

The multimedia software displays aeronautical charts, satellite images and elevation maps along with overlay tools that, for example, mark no-fly zones and ground obstructions. Originally designed for the U.S. Air Force's F-16 (known as the Fighting Falcon), FalconView has been adopted by a wide variety of aircraft and spread throughout other branches of the U.S. military. Most recently, it was enhanced for the Army's use.

An integral part of the military's Portable Flight Planning Software, FalconView counts more than 20,000 users today. The software has won several awards, and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates even devotes a chapter to it in his book, "Business @ the Speed of Thought."

"Convenience and time savings have been two key reasons for FalconView's success," said Terry Hilderbrand, a division chief at Georgia Tech Research Institute's (GTRI) Information Technology and Telecommunications Lab. In fact, one FalconView user estimated that the software sliced his mission planning from 4.5 hours to 20 minutes.

Ease of use is another big benefit. Case in point: Hilderbrand loaded FalconView on his son's laptop computer two days before his son, a member of the Third Infantry Division at Fort Benning, was deployed to Iraq.

"There was no time to give him training on the software," Hilderbrand says. "Yet he was able to figure out the program on his own and generate maps for leaders in his platoon and battalion in Iraq, which was important to rapid movement in the desert."

FalconView's open architecture and interoperability also have contributed to its popularity, and several European nations use a special version of the software for their air forces.

FalconView is now used for a wide range of mapping activities, including many non-combat objectives:

• Firefighting: The U.S. Forest Service has used FalconView to help drop fire retardant and communicate with ground workers about where and how fast forest fires are spreading.

• Whale sightings: FalconView has helped the U.S. Navy track whales for an environmental study.

• Drug traffic: U.S. Customs agents use FalconView to track drug-runners who fly small aircraft into the country.

• Forensics tool: Members of the military's history department have used the mapping software to help in missing-in-action cases by recreating geographic conditions on the days that aircraft have crashed.